Flash back to late-'90s Yesler Terrace with Zia Mohajerjasbi's short film Hagereseb.

In the picture of an ever-changing Seattle, it’s hard to ignore the issues of class strife in Yesler Terrace’s racially integrated public housing development. Yet despite premiering in Seattle International Film Festival’s Faces of Yesler Terrace program at Harvard Exit Theatre (May 23 at 11am), Hagereseb focuses less on the local politics and more on a friendship between two Eritrean boys. The short film tells the story of 10-year-old Abai (Joseph Smith) and his time-sensitive journey to find a fresh set of batteries for his keyboard so he can get one last family music lesson before his older brother Sam gets sent back to Eritrea.

For some, it might almost seem too simplistic for its setting. But director Zia Mohajerjasbi drew inspiration from the simple but powerful narratives he found watching Iranian cinematic classics like The White Balloon, a story about a girl losing a 500-toman banknote. “I was toying around on a Casio when we got the idea behind Hagereseb—the batteries and keyboard being central,” Mohajerjasbi says. “A simple narrative, like the lost toman paired with recounted childhood memories of friends who came up in Yesler.”

Mohajerjasbi has made a name for himself directing music videos for Seattle-based artists including Macklemore and Blue Scholars. His vivid depictions of Seattle via its hip-hop scene earned him the 2009 Stranger Genius Award in Film before ever making a feature. His feel for civic cinema led him to team with producer Kirby Teuila Grey, and storywriters Saman Maydání (director of fellow Faces of Yesler film, Even the Walls) and Futsum Tsegai to craft Hagereseb’s story starting in 2010. “We’d been talking about Yesler amongst ourselves, and others that had a personal connection to Yesler, a lot throughout the years,” he says. “And as we conversed over time, the story behind Hagereseb developed.”

Hagereseb is a Tigrinya word that most closely translates to “place of my people, roots.” While it takes place in 1997, 20 years before the public housing project began being redeveloped, it’s a Yesler film by its very construction. If Hagereseb is political at all, it’s because of the larger community process and the deliberate casting and use of space. Take Rahwa Habte, whose prior collaborations with the Yesler film crew led to landing her debut acting role as Abai’s older sister. “The entire cast are first-time actors who either lived or are living in Yesler Terrace, or have a relationship with that space,” says Mohajerjasbi. “We wanted to include people grounded in their own cultural experience—and those are the relationships that have been the ingredients to this filmmaking process”

As Habte simply put it, “It’s important that we tell our stories, because I don’t think people know our [Yesler] stories.”

SIFF 2015: Faces of Yesler Terrace
May 23 at 11am, Harvard Exit Theatre, $13 

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